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Commencement Addresses

Fall 2005 Convocation Address

  • Date: 09/27/2005
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: Student Union Ballroom
  • Thank you, Provost Stroble, for your excellent review of the progress we have made. And thanks to all of you who have helped to create and refine these important documents.

    The design principles of our Academic Plan and the metrics of the Academic Scorecard are the operational tools by which we now continue to implement the vision and strategic intent that we first set forth in Charting the Course.

    Together, these three documents and the actions that flow from them illustrate how it is that our collective work over the past year, as we sought to define operational excellence and academic primacy, has come together and continues to build momentum for our continued success as a university.

    As we now move forward in this new academic year, it is my responsibility, as your president, to share some thoughts about the context in which we find ourselves and why I think what we are doing will serve us well.

    Across the country and around the world, "seismic rumbles of change" are being felt - as higher education now faces the erosion of public trust, the pressure of financial disinvestment from states and nations and new and unprecedented challenges.

    Coupled with the recent economic downturn, it is no surprise that these new realities have made us all feel frustrated.

    Yet, as we have discussed many times, all of us know that if we sit passively by, our mood only will worsen. And, if we do nothing, less-desirable solutions will be forced upon us by the legislature.

    So, rather than being passive, we have been busy working together; seeking to determine how to act; how to solve our own problems; and how to forge our own, rightful destiny.

    So let's first review the challenges facing higher education: Just two weeks ago, The Economist published a comprehensive survey of higher education across the world.
    ("Survey: Higher Education," The Economist, September 10, 2005)

    There, seven short articles written by Adrian Wooldrige do an exceptional job in laying out the transformational and fundamental changes now being wrought on higher education by four major forces - those being (1) competition, (2) globalization, (3) the growth of the knowledge economy, and (4) the democratization or "massification" of higher education.

    Since time does not permit me to do more than note these four forces now impinging on higher education, I urge you to read that survey, which you can find by going online to http://www.economist.com/surveys.

    Suffice it to say that I think that we are in for a transformation as large as that seen at the beginning of the industrial revolution when our country made secondary education a universal requirement. Indeed, the massification of higher education alone has many transformational implications, to say nothing of competition, globalization, or the knowledge economy.

    Nationally, we are seeing a significant erosion of public trust in higher education, fueled in large measure by tuition increases and by legislative assumptions perpetuated by anecdotal stories of inefficiency and excessive duplication.

    In response, we see two quite different approaches: First, that of the American Council on Education, which seeks to launch a national marketing campaign to regain public trust.

    Second, and more pragmatically, is an initiative now emerging out of the Council on Competitiveness, which will define innovative approaches by which higher education can link better to world economic forces.

    In our own state of Ohio, you often have heard me say how challenged our legislature is in their understanding of higher education. Just last week, Speaker Jon Hustead issued a challenge to higher education, calling for "...Ohio's colleges and universities to work collaboratively for the benefits of Ohio's students."

    And State Representative Shawn Webster has formed a legislative study council to examine the funding for higher education - expecting that a reallocation of current funds will more than suffice to support all of higher education.

    From "our" side, the Chairman of the Board of Regents Ed Adams, University of Cincinnati President Nancy Zimpher, and I have formed a Higher Education Leadership Council which brings together - for the first time in history - the four principal constituent groups from higher education . . . the Board of Regents, the two- and four-year public colleges and universities, and the private/independent colleges and universities.

    Already, this year HELC has launched ROEI, or the return on educational investment initiative that resulted in an additional $30 million appropriation. And HELC is now working on a comprehensive vision and plan for Ohio's system of higher education that will link our institutions better to the demographic and economic regions of our state.

    I share this broad summary of challenges with you, because I know that challenges can be stimulating, and because I firmly believe that "the best way to predict the future is by inventing it."

    Already, we have accomplished a great deal - in transforming the look, the feel and the reputation of our University. Academically, we have created innovative, effective models and practices for teaching and scholarship, and we are planting the new programmatic seeds from which future generations of leadership and innovation will blossom.

    And we have achieved national recognition in community engagement, inclusive excellence, student success and much more.

    Indeed, we have been setting trends; leading the way. Out of our own circumstances, from our own necessity, if you will, exceptional University of Akron innovations have come to light.

    For example, I see the design principles of our academic plan as the elements of a new standard of university performance, and I expect that we will continue to elaborate and refine these design principles over the course of the year.

    Indeed, I believe that we are forging a new and definitive standard for a great American university.

    Let me tell you how.

    You see, in yesterday's model of higher education, institutional "excellence" was defined largely by selectivity and expense - by how many students are excluded and by how much money is spent per student, regardless of outcomes.

    By contrast, we seek to be measured by our effectiveness - by outcomes and achievements and the efficiency of our investments. In short, we seek to be known by the actual results that we achieve and by the success of the communities that we serve.

    • Unlike others, we shall not be measured by how many students we exclude, but rather by how much value we add in enabling the success of our students.
    • Unlike others, we will not be measured by the barriers we erect between ourselves and our communities, but by the collaborative impact that we create for each other and for our common future.
    • Unlike others, we shall not be measured by the isolation of our disciplines, but by their integration as applied in solving the problems of today.

    Our choices are clear - continue to insist that we must do things the way we always have and run headlong into the consequences that loom large on the horizon . . . or rise to the challenges of increasing needs and demands for a new model of public higher education.

    In all candor, rising to the challenge will not be easy. But the 21st Century is demanding nothing less than relentless innovation, where necessity is the mother of invention. So, let us begin.

    Thank you one and all for your efforts and for your attention today. I invite you to join the Provost and me for a reception in Ballroom A to meet new colleagues and to recognize our distinguished professors.


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